Flint’s Water: An Environmental Disaster

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An environmental and health atrocity has been committed against African Americans in Flint, Michigan. The water provided by the government, one of our institutions that is tasked to protect people has instead poisoned Flint residents. The City of Flint stopped buying their piped water from Detroit, instead using the polluted Flint River as a transitional source until Lake Huron water was available. Flint’s Mayor Dayne Walling and other officials congratulated themselves for saving Flint millions. Unfortunately, African Americans had little to celebrate. Some of the gravest fall-outs of this environmental disaster is that chemicals like trihalomethane, a by-product of disinfectant, in the rivers causes rashes and pipes leached by the chemicals cause lead poisoning.

superdomenoGovernment agencies and political leaders have long passively neglected or actively abused African Americans when it comes to the environment and health. The United States has failed African Americans. And this is nothing new lest we forget the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment when from 1932 to 1972 scientists did not treat the syphilis in infected African American men in the study although treatment with penicillin was developed and readily available in 1947. The scientists watched the men slowly and painfully die from syphilis. Remember the aftermath of Katrina in 2005 when African Americans in parts of New Orleans and bordering parishes suffered for days in the Super Dome, the Conference Center, and countless other places waiting and waiting for their government to help to send help, to save them.

The challenges continue. Environmental racism is insidiously at work in Flint. Impoverished African Americans were stripped of healthy water, a necessary natural resource to be healthy, really to stay alive. Whites in power in the government transgressed African Americans in Flint. Whites used their power making adverse environment decisions to the benefit of white leadership and the detriment of African Americans in the city.

Thankfully, many have offered practical means of support including The United Methodist Church. Michigan Area’s Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey recently made a Flint Appeal, saying,

Flint’s pressing need for a new water infrastructure and the Flint children who face life-long cognitive and behavioral effects of lead poisoning require comprehensive and long-term solutions.  We must deal with the systemic issues of racism and poverty that have been part of this complex issue. As United Methodists in Michigan I believe we must be part of those long-term solutions; we must be among those who are first on the scene and last to leave.

The bishop’s appeal and financial contribution provides immediate support with items like filters and bottled water. The Michigan Area also understands that longterm plans are required to rectify the water crisis and assist African Americans in Flint and across the United States to be healthy, self-sustaining, and independent.

A Black Environmental Liberation Theology (BELT) is being invoked and practiced by African American churches and agencies. The Michigan Area United Methodist Church are doing the same as white allies to African Americans exposed to environmental threats and health issues in Flint. “Black liberation theology, which decries the oppression of African Americans based on biblical principles–is the foundation of BELT, a nascent theology” based on environmental justice and activism by African American Christians. (Glave, To Love the Wind and the Rain, 190) Taken a step further, white allies like the United Methodist Church draw from this theology and are part of this activism. BELT is “a cornerstone of environmental justice” that dismantles environmental racism. (Glave, To Love the Wind and the Rain, 189) A practical theology is evolving as Bishop Kiesey and others in the Michigan Area craft an environmental justice agenda for change for and with African Americans in Flint. My hope is that theology will be sustained with longterm action.

 

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The African American Church Never Left the Outdoors

Many pieces of a puzzle are on the floor of my living room. More are in a large gray tub upstairs. I am looking at the pieces of what has been my interest lately: the African American church and the environment. Going back even further, I’ve long been drawn to learning and sharing about African Americans and the environment–the great love of my life–for about 23 years.

As is true in my life, I shift back and forth between peaks and valleys. A bit of a peak is coming up. In late March 2014, I head to the 12th National Black Writers Conference as a panelist on the “Saving Our Communities, Saving Ourselves” panel sponsored by The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York. Thank goodness they haven’t asked for a title yet but I am leaning towards “The African American Church Never Left the Outdoors.”

The literature on the subject continues to grow though still small:

Veronica Kyle, Faith in Place

I am hoping to blend scholarship with my other concern: environmental activism in and through the African American church.

And the first person who comes to mind is Veronica Kyle, Congregational Outreach at Faith in Place.  She has been faithful and busy:

“Veronica joined the Faith in Place staff in August 2008 to engage in the much needed work of linking/involving African American churches to the work of Faith in Place. In addition Veronica works with other Faith in Place partners in the movement to share, coordinate and support congregations that are new to the idea of living out their faith while serving as good stewards of the environment. Veronica lived and worked for the past twelve years in the Caribbean and Southern Africa for a faith-based organization in the areas of social justice and development. She received her B.A. in Religion and Women Studies from Vermont College of Norwich University and her Masters degree in Gender Studies from University of the West Indies, 1999.” (“Our Staff,” Faith in Place)

Veronica works with one of many grassroots environmental activists in or with churches:

As I continue to consider this puzzle, take a look at a classic scene of African Americans having church in the woods “Beloved,” the film. Steven Spielberg, the director, was smart to use what sounds like Toni Morrison’s exact words from her novel Beloved:

African Burial Ground National Monument: 2013 New York Stories 2

In 1991, I was living in New York when the burial place of Africans who were enslaved and free were discovered at what is now 290 Broadway in downtown Manhattan. Their remains were buried from the late 1600’s to the 1794. It is only recently in 2013 that I am fully understanding and appreciating the African Burial Ground in the context of a long history of Africans and people of African descent . . . my history . . . our history.

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The National Parks Service offers a broad experience at the monument including an indoor video and exhibition at the museum, and an outdoor memorial.

Some of the focus is on the spiritual implications of a people in bondage holding onto their humanity by burying loved ones in the midst of oppression and violence. Only humans bury their dead. The curators offer insightful social and cultural context to the lives of people of African descent including how some labored and family lives.

Learn more reading Audrey Peterman’s “African Burial Ground National Monument: Peace at Last” in Our True Nature: Finding a Zest of Life in the National Park System.

Photos by Dianne Glave

Eve Project, A Farm, A Saturday Afternoon

What a lovely afternoon spent with the EVE Circle. LaVerne Baker Hotep, with the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime (CVVC), organized a retreat for a group of African American women at Wild Red’s Gardens, formerly known as Mildreds’ Daughters Farm. It is the only farm within the Pittsburgh city limit.

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The women spent a joyous day outdoors on the farm. When the skies darkened and it got cooler, they joined together for food and fellowship.

I shared part of the afternoon with the women sharing about African Americans and the environment, and leading a guided meditation focusing on faith, the environment, and health. I was delighted to see Lois McClendon with B-PEP/Coalition Against Violence and a Pittsburgh environmentalist. 

Photos by Dianne Glave

2012 Helpshop: Where Environment, Spirituality, and Health Meet

With Leanna, A Participant

The Greensburg District of the United Methodist Church (UMC) held their Helpshop on January 28, 2012 at Community Church in Irwin, Pennsylvania. The theme was “Mind, Body and Spirit” with Tanika Harris, the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of the UMC, serving as the keynote speaker. At the GBGM, “she provides resources as well as training opportunities to communities and churches throughout the country that are engaged in community development and social justice through advocacy and youth/young adult empowerment.” (Helpshop brochure) The breakout sessions included “Healthy and Vital Congregations,” “Sexual Health and Wholeness,” and “Remodeling the Temple.

I was invited to facilitate a session titled, “Africans Americans, Religion, the Environment, and Health.” We discussed:

  • Knowing one’s (environmental) history is good for you
  • Nature is healthy
  • Scripture and health
  • Better health of (African) Americans by experiencing the outdoors
  • Our Stories
  • A healthy mind: environmental meditation with African American themes

With William Meekins, UMC

One participant shared her memory of the fragrance of lilacs while spending time with her grandmother; the memory of those flowers evoked a spiritual connection, a connection to God. Our meditation included scripture, deep breathing, music, the sounds of the ocean,  prayer, and silence.

Many thanks to those in the Greensberg District of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, UMC who organized the Helpshop: Holly Sawyer, administrative assistant and William Meekins, District Superintendent. Of special note: Community United Methodist Church did a wonderful job hosting the event. And of course, many thanks to Rev. Kathy Barnhart, Rev. Rhea Summit and Rev. Augie Twigg for their diligence and hard work.

Photo by Dianne Glave

Memory of 911: No Photos, No Images, Just Memories

911 has profoundly affected the nation. I’m originally from New York having grown up in Queens and worked in Manhattan including downtown. So now-gone World Trade Center and the death of so many people has changed me too.

I was living in Los Angeles when the planes hit the Twin Towers. I was getting ready for work at a local university. The TV was off so I had no idea that NYC, the United States, and the world was changing. My mother rang me and told me to turn on the television. I won’t describe what I saw because so many of us saw the footage repeatedly on CNN and other channels.

I called my cousin who worked steps away from the World Trade Center. People everywhere were jamming phone circuits. I like so many other people were worried about family and friend could not get through. I called my mother again and I learned my cousin had not gone into work that day. She was safe.

In shock, really feeling like a zombie, I went to work. LAX, the international airport in Los Angeles, stood between me and work. The airport and the streets around were shut down by the authorities. So I drove and drove until I found a hole to go through.

At the university, I went to administration and asked if classes were in session. No one had ever experienced anything like this so I got no answers. They too were in shock.

I headed to my first class and five of my students were waiting for me. We all knew what had happened and were stunned. I asked them what they were thinking and feeling. Each student shared. And then we all cried. I didn’t go to any of my other classes.

I did go to Faithful Central Church in Inglewood where a service had been quickly organized for the evening. I wept and fell over unable to stand up to the atrocity and destruction. Three women caught me before I hit the ground. The women held me for a long time.

A few days later I had to get on a plane for work. There were military everywhere with semi-automatic weapons. It was the beginning of the restrictions on traveling and luggage. I was scared to get on a plane but I forged on. It’s that New England stoicism I suppose.

In November, just a few months later, I went to New York to meet my cousin and my parents. My cousin resisted me when I said I wanted to walk around downtown. I did get out alone though.  The cut-through of buildings I’d used in the past  as a short-cut to avoid crowds on the streets were heavily guarded and were no more. Military were everywhere. I was asked to show my ID, which was my driver’s license. It was disorienting downtown  in a different and frightening way. It was not the bright lights, big city disorientation.

My parents arrived downtown a few hours after my arrival. We ate lunch with my cousin and then my father wanted to go to the World Trade Center. He had worked most of his adult life at Banker’s Trust across the street from the towers so this place had great significance for him.

We walked over and my father stood silent in front of the barriers that made it impossible to see anything that remained of the buildings. Fliers covered the wall of missing friends and family–all those missing loved ones. My mother did not understand his silence and started to rush him to go. She had not worked in Manhattan so the destruction meant little to her. I turned to my mother and said, “You have to give him time, Mom. This is where he spent most of his work life. This is where he met his colleagues and most of his friends here at Bankers Trust across from the World Trade Center.” So we waited. He said nothing but turned away from where the towers once stood and walked. We followed silently behind him.

I will always remember the World Trade Center and the people. I cannot count how many times I got off the subway early in the morning with a flood of dresses and suits with people. All of us ran swiftly through of the towers on marble floors. I ran up the stairs instead of taking the escalators with my jacket or sweater flapping around me into the streaks of sunlight and the drift of clouds, into the cool air of fall. That was my World Trade Center.

Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro:” An Environmental Perspective

I am blessed with the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” described in The Declaration of Independence. Thanks to race leaders like Frederick Douglass, I am free to spend my Fourth of July weekend any way I please: sitting in Overton Park in Memphis, typing my thoughts on my computer; going to the hair salon; visiting Graceland, walking down Beale Street, and more. I am black and a I am woman. I am free.  

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass gave his famous “The Meaning of the July Fourth for the Negro Speech” on July 5, 1852 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. As a backdrop to his speech, the United States was decades beyond the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence during the 18th century. Yet African Americans were still enslaved, most in the American South until 1865 at the end of the Civil War. Most were neither free in the South or independent even in the North with the threat of being captured, forcibly relocated, and enslaved in the South. This was the setting for Douglass’ famous speech that decried enslavement and in racial equality.   

He introduced the speech, saying, “He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.” (Douglass)    

Later in the speech, Douglass quoted the bible pointing to nature, imagery, and place: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” (Douglass)    

Quoting scripture, he referenced two places, Babylon and Jerusalem, two very different places with different meanings. Babylonian conquest meant subjugation of the Hebrews much like enslavement in the American South. Returning to Zion literally represented freedom and home for the Hebrews; in much the same way Jerusalem was freedom for people of African descent where whites subjugated and oppressed African Americans.  

The imagery of harps hanging in the willows reinforced the focus on place. Willows represented a strength in the midst of sorrow in Babylon. The harps or the music from the harps represented beauty even in the lament, something to cling to in the midst of sorrow as the Babylonians forced Israelites to leave Jerusalem. The metaphors ring true for both the Hebrews and African Americans.    

Douglass was hopeful towards the end of his speech: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. “’The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.” (Douglass) Enslavement of the Hebrews and enslavement had to end!    

I believe much work remains as racial inequality, and that includes environmental racism, still exists in the United States. Yet and still, I am grateful for all Frederick Douglass sacrificed for each American, black or white, for the sake of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” more than a century ago.  

Image From http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/frdo/visionary.html

Eat, Pray, Love: A Reflection on Health, Spirituality, and Geography

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Penguin Press, 2006.        

But it is my understanding that the health of the planet is affected by the health of every individual on it. As long as even two souls are locked in conflict, the whole world is contaminated by it. Similarly, if even one or two souls can be free from discord, this will increase the general health of the whole world, the way a few healthy cells in a body can increase the general health of the body.    

A Prayer to God by Elizabeth Gilbert (pp. 32-33)              

My Brother in Rome

 Thinking back to my trip to Italy as I read Eat, Pray, Love: African American brother and sister on a journey. My travels to Rome to Florence, and finally Milan with train rides connecting the three cities flooded my mind and spirit with endearing images and sacred moments, some of which you can see in my photos taken in 2004.             

Milan

Elizabeth’s–I will use her first name throughout my reflection because she takes the reader on such a personal intimate journey–non-fiction book is a travelogue. The book is much like 19th century travelogues or journals I remember reading by Europeans traveling through and living in the American South. I am thinking specifically of the actress Fanny Kemble’s journals that decried the atrocities of enslavement in the sea islands off Georgia.       

Elizabeth travels and journals in reverse leaving the US, to see parts of the world beyond the borders of her home in New York. In traveling, Eat, Pray, Love becomes an exploration in geography and spiritual mapping by God that helps Elizabeth towards spiritual, mental, and physical wholeness and fulfillment. The journey takes her to Italy, India, and Indonesia. I was drawn to the first leg of her journey as I remember my own trip to Italy.          

Spiritually and geographically, Elizabeth describes herself culturally as a Christian. She insists “that Christ is not the only path to God.” (p. 14) The path and by extension the many paths are a spiritual metaphor that extends from literally traversing across terrain, part of geography. She begins to trace and even reconfigure her spiritual map: “When you’re traveling in India–especially through holy sites and Ashrams–you see a lot of people wearing beads around their necks.” (p. 1)           

Elizabeth takes us with her to Italy where she falls in “supplication” to the floor in prayer in English and Italian thanking the universe and God. You see she is grateful to be alone in her hotel room without a paramour, a young lover in tow. (p. 9) Perhaps she offered a prayer of thanks because three years earlier she left a marriage and the possibility of a child. This might sound strange to some. Yet she left her marriage–her husband was emotionally remote–choosing to be alone without a husband or child. returning to the young Italian man she left behind in a restaurant, she decided to be alone. But really she wasn’t alone. She sought God and found him, found her.              

Exterior of Coliseum, Rome

 During her time in Italy, Elizabeth also battles depression and loneliness. She eats and eats and eats, a panacea at least in part to what ails her body and soul. She puts on weight; yet when she glimpses herself in the mirror she sees a friend in better mental, spiritual, and physical health. This is thanks to the people called Italians and the geography, the country called Italy.        

Elizabeth is flawed just like the rest of us, making mistakes and experiencing revelations along the way. I recommend reading this book though you may not share her beliefs or understand her choices.    By the close of the book, you could be looking at your own reflection. I did as I remembered wandering the streets of Milan alone without a map, fearless and happy with what little Italian I knew. I spent a short time with people who treated me with love even when I couldn’t count change. Yes, Elizabeth does without a map in Rome!   

  

Parthenon, Rome

          Follow Elizabeth from beginning to end, from sorrow to sorrow, from revelation to revelation, reading beyond my take of her time in Italy, and beginning fresh with India and Indonesia through health, spirituality and geography.          

 

 Photos by Dianne Glave Except the Book Cover            

The Body and the Tree: Excerpts From a Sermon

Blogged by special request from a member at Warren United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh.

Title: The Weakest Link?

Scripture: I Corinthians 12:22 (NIV): On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.

Fellowship Day, Warren United Methodist Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Sunday, May 16, 2010

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Do you remember the game show “The Weakest Link”? Let’s go down memory lane. “The Weakest Link” has been on British television for the longest with variations of the show all around the word. The game crossed the pond and was on prime time television for less than a year back in 2001 initially to high ratings in the United States.

Visualize the stage brightly lit with multi-colored strobes lights flashing as the contestants stand in the half round behind podiums blinking as they face the cameras. In the center stands the stern frightening game show host with a British accent. She says, “Let’s play the weakest link.” She peers at the contestants over her reading glasses asking questions and making quips. Each contestant strives to answer as many questions consecutively for ever-increasing dollar amounts. At the end of each round, the contestants vote on the weakest link based on how poorly each contestant answered the questions. Or how threatening a competitor might be in blocking other players from winning the game. When someone is voted out by the majority, the host says, “You are the weakest link, goodbye! The weakest link steps away from the podium taking “The Walk of Shame.” The goal to end the show as the last contestant standing winning the pot of money collected by the winner.

Why has the show been so popular, particularly in Britain? I think in part the show reflects the tendency of our modern global society to deal ruthlessly marginalizing the weakest people or groups often made invisible in our midst.

On Fellowship Day, here at Warren, let us consider how the Apostle Paul admonished the ancient Corinthians function as a community and treat one another as equals in fellowship. I Corinthians 6:15 says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” In being parts of the body or church—a finger, liver, skin, brain, heart that’s all of us, me, you, and you—through Paul, God has given us a holy mandate of equality. Jouette M. Bassler describes the connection between Christ and the body: “This spiritual union makes the deeds (I emphasize DEEDs) of the body more—not less—important, for what is done with the physical body is mapped onto the body of Christ.” Such deeds include advocating for equality; when we treat people unjustly as inferior or conversely as our equals, our deeds are mapped onto the holy body of Christ our Lord, that’s the Church, the body of Christ is the church. As African Americans who have experienced or learned about the Civil Rights Movement, we are well aware of the disparity caused by racism, segregation and violence. With such experience and knowledge, can we live with ourselves if someone in the body of Christ is being treated as the weakest link? We are equals.

Let’s go back to I Corinthians 12:22, our core scripture, which is part of a longer passage from verse 12 to 25 (NIV). Please follow along in your bulletin or bible as I read. In the passage, the apostle Paul is letting the church of Corinth have it concerning inequity.  Is there inequality in the modern church? You decide.

In Paul’s letters, he admonished the church of Corinth for some bad behavior including elevating themselves. But first a backdrop to Paul’s reprimand. He founded this congregation in 51 CE in the ancient capital city of the Roman province of Achaia  in what is now Western Greece. Much like cities here in the Northeastern US, Achaia was an urban center that was ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse. Paul responded to the people in the church of Corinth in the city who struggled with personal relationships. Some congregants at Corinth thought they were better than other members!n Hard to believe. Can you imagine? People in United Methodist Church like those in so many other modern denominations and churches are guilty of doing the same thing. Just goes to show you that bias and inequity remains timeless across the centuries.

So Paul built on the metaphor of the body of Christ to make his point. The body is made of parts. They all are meant to function together. There is no defecting. Sounds draconian no? Thefoot cannot and does not detach itself, leave and pitch a tent on its own. In verse  15, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.” Taking the metaphor even further, one part is not better than the other. And we cannot do without a part, no matter how insignificant it might SEEM. Verse 22 says, “On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

And so it is with those of us in the church. We are members of the church. We are called to work and serve with one another. This is a life-long commitment so no cutting and running from the church when things get rough. We cannot do without one another; we need that fellowship for spiritual health like we need water, air and food for our bodies to survive. And I cannot emphasize this enough: we are all equals; you are not better that anyone in the church; no one is the weakest link;  we all play equal and important role. That means that Pastor Emma Smith is no more or no less than you; the same is true for though I stand here physically elevated before you. The church mother who willingly and happily makes sure the bathroom stays tidy before, during, and after service is equal to the member who meticulously and ably chairs the church finance committee.

Paul had his metaphors and so do I. Consider an old oak tree. Its bark and branches brown, its leaves green, and the roots sunk deep in the earth. Without the leaves photosynthesis—the process of using the energy of the sun to transform carbon dioxide or CO2 into oxygen or O2 to fuel the tree—would never happen. Without the branches the energy drawn from CO2 pulled by the leaves would not travel to sustain the trunk and roots. Without the water and nutrients drawn by the roots the energy created by the sun and CO2 would be useless. So you see ALL the parts of tree work in tandem. One part cannot do without the other. The leaf is not better than roots. Not one part is the weakest link.

All sermons must come to an end as was true of all of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. We are called to love one another as members of the church,at  this congregation called Warren United Methodist Church.We must break bread at same table, drink the same fruit punch in this low Original Hot Dog Shop, otherwise known as Dirty O’s or O’s of life.  I ask each of you to treat one another as equals in fellowship, rejecting how the world measures people as the weakest link often setting people like the handicapped and elderly adrift. We are called by God to be better than that. Let us accept the call, always remembering the “parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

This mandate extends from one another in this church to those in the Methodist church around the world to the rest of the world. Prayerfully through our efforts we can transform the world. We join together with each other to be the church. Go even further by joining with those across the street, across town, across the state, across the country, and around the world!

PHOTOS BY DIANNE GLAVE